Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Linda Wagner-MartinI found this biography of Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) to be well written and researched. Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, short-story writer, and winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for The Collected Poems (awarded posthumously).
My motive for reading this biography was to prepare for the reading of The Bell Jar which I understand to be a semi-autobiographical novel that recounts her own life experiences of depression, attempted suicide and recovery into a new life. Plaths intent in writing The Bell Jar was to deliver an optimistic message of rebirth from depression.
Unfortunately, Sylvia Plath succumbed to depression and committed suicide twenty-seven days after The Bell Jar was published in the United Kingdom. Sylvia Plath was clearly a talented writer, and her death was a terrible loss to the world of literature.
In the Preface the author notes that when she began research for this biography she had the full cooperation of Ted Hughes (Sylvias estranged husband) who owns the Plath literary rights. But when it came near the time to published that cooperation ceased because he wanted editorial control which the author refused. Consequently she was unable to include quotations from interviews with Ted.
At various times during this biographys account of Plaths life, the author references poems and other writings by Sylvia that reflect on those life experiences. Since my motive for reading this book was in preparation for The Bell Jar I have included extensive quotations from the book below that make reference to The Bell Jar.
The following quote describes Sylvias writing of The Bell Jar and also mentions some of the various influences of other literature on her work:
Sylvia’s letters home were ecstatic. What she was not writing to Aurelia, however, was even more exciting. With Knopf’s acceptance of The Colossus, a deep frustration had dissolved, and she was now working “Fiendishly” on her novel. Now called The Bell Jar, the book was written in the satirical voice of a Salinger or Roth character who uses a mixture of wry understatement and comic exaggeration. The protagonist’s interior monologue tells of her summer as guest editor at Mademoiselle, her first serious romance and its breakup, her depression, her attempted suicide, and--most important to Sylvia--her recovery.The last sentence above is a lead in to the next chapter.
Plath wanted to do more than write autobiographical fiction. She wanted her novel to speak for the lives of countless women--women she had known--women caught in conflicting social codes who were able to laugh about their plight. A central image of the book, the fig tree bearing ripe figs, depicts the female dilemma of the 1950s. No woman can have it all, but choosing is also difficult.I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree ....The protagonists comic monologue is calculated to imply that a woman does not have to make that single choice. Her dilemma is entirely artificial. Only social pressure forces the choice. Esther Greenwood, the narrator of the novel, appreciates the ridiculousness of her plight. Her perceptions set her outside society, but they do not free her from the pressures of that world. Plath carefully sets the story of Esther in the context of a political situation (not for nothing had she been reading Camus and Sartre), the controversial execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Esthers personal horror at what she finds in life is set against the horror of their executions.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantine and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldnt quite make out.
l saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest ....
Plaths choice of her grandmothers maiden name, Greenwood, was satisfying for both symbolic reasons and personal ones, and since the novel moves toward Esther`s rebirth, the image is appropriate. In The Bell Jar, Esther is a survivor: she has a sense of humor, a cool if cynical view of life that colors the grim comedy of her descriptions. She is also--at the time she writes the story--a mother, a practical woman who has made the best of her life, and who tries to learn from it. Like Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or Elizabeth in Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest, Esther is not ashamed of her descent into madness: she wants to tell about it, partly to rid herself of memories, partly to help other women faced with the same cultural pressure.
Writing The Bell Jar was a liberating experience for Sylvia. She went each morning to the Merwins’ and wrote for three or four hours. For the first time in her life, her writing provided continuity for her. The long prose story had its own rhythm, its own demands. With poetry, when Sylvia had finished one poem, there was no reason to write any particular next poem; everything was separate, distinct. With a novel, everything could be used: the writers life was fair game, including all the writers experiences and certainly the writer‘s emotions, whatever had prompted them. And in writing this novel, Plath did draw on all her experiences. For example, she borrowed a sexual experience from a blind date during her freshman year at Smith, describing it as though it happened with Buddy Willard.
In many ways, The Catcher in the Rye was the model Plath was using for The Bell Jar. Sylvia turned to it for structure, and drew on it whenever she ran out of events that seemed to fit Esther’s story. Holden meets a sailor and a Cuban; so does Esther. Holden walks forty-one blocks back to his New York hotel; Esther walks forty-eight. Holden looks as yellow in his mirror as Esther (looking Chinese) does in hers. He vomits before going to bed; in The Bell Jar Doreen does that, but then Esther and the other guest editors share in another long purge after eating bad crab. Both books have a cemetery scene. Catcher has its violent and bloody suicide in James Castle’s death, which becomes the suicide by hanging in The Bell Jar. Holden Caulfield wants to go West because he thinks that part of the country will save him. Esther wants to go to Chicago for the same reasons. The suggestion of sexual deviance in the subplot, too, echoes Holdens discovery of the homosexuality of Mr. Antolini, his friend and former teacher. That discovery precipitates Holden`s breakdown. For Esther, however, the suspicion of her friend`s sexual preference is much less important than the fact of her death.
Tone and mood in The Bell Jar change quickly. Plath opens with a flush of Esther`s euphoric memories, painfully described yet distant enough to be harmless. This was a comic novel Sylvia was writing (she later called it a pot-boiler). Its outcome was to be positive: the rebirth of Esther, a woman who had come through both Dante’s hell and her own, to Find her fulfillment not in some idealized Beatrice, the unattainable woman/spirit, but in herself. The Bell Jar would reach beyond Catcher, because in that book Holden was telling his story to a sympathetic therapist and to his readers, but he was not yet free of the asylum or its stigma. For Esther, there was rebirth.
For Plath, too, a yearning for rebirth, for a clean start, seems to have dominated the spring of 1961. Now that her appendix had been removed, she could no longer blame her moods on health problems. The moods, however, remained and a vengeful anger periodically erupted through the calm surface of her life. It also erupted in her writing. (p187)
The following describes Sylvia Plaths efforts at finding an American publisher for The Bell Jar and how she felt about her novel.
Sylvia quickly submitted the novel to Harper & Row, eager to find an American publisher before Heinemann brought out the book in England on January 14, 1963. Even though she has earlier referred to The Bell Jar as a “pot-boiler” and would be publishing it under a pseudonym (“Victoria Lucas”), her attitude about the novel had changed. Reading it in proofs, Sylvia realized what she had accomplished. The Bell Jar was good, crisp, funny, and yet poignant book. It spoke with the voice of an over-aged Smithie, reminiscent of the cynical Smith voice that colored the campus newspaper and year book. It was a 1950s voice, a 1950s attitude, just as it was supposed to be. (p233)The following is a reference of what her next novel would have been had she lived to finish it.
She worked on her new novel now titled Double Exposure about the gradual corruption of a naive American girl who revered honesty by a powerful and inherently dishonest man. As in her other writing the theme came directly from her life. (p236)Is it possible that the inherently dishonest man being referred to above was Ted Hughes?
The following is a description of Sylvia Plaths reaction to reviews after The Bell Jar was published.
January 14, The Bell Jar was officially published and available. ... a few days later Sylvia received a letter from Elizabeth Lawrence of Harper and Row rejecting The Bell Jar. Addressing Sylvia as Mrs. Ted Hughes the editor complained that the breakdown remained only “a private experience.” The novel did not work, she said. ...I find it ironic and unfair that Ted Hughes inherited the literary rights to Sylvia Plaths post-death income from book sales and the fame of the Plath name. Sylvia had signed some divorce papers, but apparently the divorce wasnt final at the time of her death. The unfairness of it all is compounded by the fact that Ted Hughes either hid or destroyed Sylvias Journals from the time near her death. These are the journals that most likely would have contained derogatory remarks about her husband.
On January 25 two reviews of The Bell Jar by the unknown Victoria Lucas appeared. Robert Taubman, writing in New Statesman thought the novel was excellent and that Lucas was a female J.D. Salinger. The Times Literary Supplement was less excited about the book but still reviewed it favorably. Although the reviews were very good, Sylvia was frustrated. They seem to have missed the point of the ending, the affirmation of Esther’s rebirth.
She was so upset in fact with such a need to talk to somebody that she went downstairs to Professor Thomas weeping uncontrollably. He asked her in and, alternating between grief an resentment, she gave free reign to her anger against her husband and the other woman, her frustration at being chained to the house and the children when she wanted to be free to write and become famous. Asking for a Sunday paper, she pointed to a poem in The Observer and said it was by her husband. Then turning to a review of The Bell Jar by Victoria Lucas she disclosed that she, Sylvia Plath, was Victoria Lucas and said that she did not want to die. (p237)
Sylvia Plath Biography
45 Tragic Facts About Sylvia Plath
After suffering from depression for the majority of her life, she died by suicide in Today, she is remembered alongside other influential and important female authors such as Virginia Woolf, and has become a cultural icon. Below are 45 tragic facts about the brilliant poet and author. The piece appeared in the Boston Herald newspaper and was the first of many other works that would be published in newspapers and periodicals. Unlike the dark and morbid poems she wrote in her later life, this poem was literally short and sweet. Before switching to writing, Plath was studying studio art at Smith College. As a child, she would often draw and paint and sketch, but teachers convinced her to switch when they recognized her way with words.
What we can do, however, is attempt to understand the intricacies of her life that may have shaped her world, and her decision to leave it. Plath had many more pieces published in local newspapers and periodicals, and at age 11 her mother encouraged her to keep a journal, which contained artwork as well as poetry. In spite of her IQ recorded at age 12 , Plath repeated fifth grade. This decision came after her family moved from Winthrop to Wellesley, Massachusetts, and wanted Plath to attend class with children her own age. Repeating a grade seemed to have no negative effect on her future academic career. Plath excelled in college, even if her personal life would soon unravel.